And now you’re applying this approach to tours in the United States?
I used to live in Washington, D.C., which is a very segregated city, especially on a class level, and I realized that my friends and I wouldn’t venture out of the neighborhoods we already knew. So we started to develop a tour of the city, and we got a Republican and a Democrat to colead it. That first trip was incredible. Watching the news, you would think that if you put a Republican and a Democrat together, they would just talk past each other. But that wasn’t the case at all. One of the most interesting conversations we had was on a visit to the Heritage Foundation, which is very conservative. Some of the liberal people in the tour group had never had this kind of open conversation with a conservative that wasn’t just sound bites, but a real, productive conversation. By the end of it, the discussion was about “What’s the solution?” rather than “You’re doing this wrong or that wrong.” It was fascinating. And that’s what happens on our tours in Israel and Palestine. That’s what happens in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.
You spent your childhood in a place with a long history of conflict. How has that experience informed this work?
I grew up in Jerusalem, but I never had a real conversation with a Jewish-Israeli person until I was 18 years old. My brother was killed by being beaten up in prison by Israeli soldiers, so I grew up very angry, very much with the idea that the other is evil. And then when I was 18, I decided to study Hebrew because I had to — not because I wanted to. Living in Jerusalem, you can’t survive without Hebrew. I remember walking into the class thinking, “None of these people probably want me to be here.” And I couldn’t have been more wrong. My Hebrew teacher was the most incredible human being. She even tried to speak Arabic to me to make me feel welcome. And that was the first time I felt like I was treated like a human being by the other.
But before that moment, I only knew one narrative of Israel, and many Israelis probably only know one narrative of Palestinians: the one they hear in the news.
Is that what you mean when you say that the most difficult trips can be the ones that are closest to home?
I think it can be much easier to be open to learning about issues or problems that are happening five or six thousand miles away. Often when I talk about my work with Syrian refugees, people will say, “Oh, I would like to go and volunteer with Syrian refugees in Jordan or Turkey.” And I ask them, “Have you volunteered with Syrian refugees in your own community? Because if not, you should start there, and then maybe go to Syria.”
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We tend to think of travel in terms of distance, but I think travel is really a lifestyle, a state of mind. And if you learn to travel in your own community, you’ll learn to travel when you go abroad. For me, the hardest trip I ever took was going from my home in East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem. It’s just a 15- or 20-minute walk, but making that trip brought about the biggest change for me, because it challenged me the most.
Many people want to relax when they go on vacation. Why should they choose to go on a challenging, dual-narrative trip?
There’s an assumption that when people travel, they’re not interested in learning. And that’s not true. Even surveys tell us it’s not true. People want to do good as they travel, and they are looking for culture and connection. I have fun in my travels: I go see museums, I swim in the ocean, I enjoy music, all of that. But that’s not all that I do. I like to say that travel is an act of diplomacy: Be a diplomat as you’re traveling and go out and meet someone new and hear their stories. And it’s so much fun! It’s the thing that you will remember, and that you’ll tell people about when you come back.
Paige McClanahan is the host of The Better Travel Podcast.